Thomas Michael Duncan
Finally we got the jetpack. “What took so long?” we shouted. “You senseless dolts! Is this the future or not?” We’d been shouting disparagingly at the inventors for years, long enough that it now came reflexively to us. Some of us banged fists against the triple-layered laminate glass or pressed foreheads against it and made unpleasant faces, but the inventors kept puttering along in their repurposed zoo exhibit. “We’re not getting any younger!”
Of course, we weren’t getting older either, unless you consider the half percent of the population on whom the youth serum failed to take effect. The rest of us aged at precisely the speed we unaged, an arrangement as frustrating as it was efficient.
We’d been shouting disparagingly at the inventors for years, long enough that it now came reflexively to us.
The inventors’ assistant wheeled the jetpack into the room on a squeaky wooden dolly. “Geez, what a presentation,” we said to the assistant, sarcasm dripping like saliva from our lips. There was a time when a team of inventors would have delivered the invention themselves, aided by pyrotechnics and a pompous announcer with a wand microphone, but the last inventor to brave the outside of the exhibit had been cornered and shaken by the shoulders until his limbs flailed like those of a wet rag doll.
We poked at the jetpack with the toes of our boots. Everyone was afraid to be first. Of all the inventions we’d demanded, the jetpack was the longest coming. “How does it work?” we shouted at the inventors. “Dolts!” someone added for good measure. Of course, they’d quit writing instruction manuals once they’d seen the crude ways we repurposed the pages. Most of us had forgotten how to read, and those who hadn’t were trying to forget.
We poked at the jetpack with the toes of our boots. Everyone was afraid to be first.
The inventors sent the assistant back to tell us how it worked. He pointed at parts and buttons and gave them names we half understood: “Directional gauge, thrust, kill, steering columns, cup holder, fuel indicator, thermometer.”
We were pleased, especially with the cup holder, which was adjustable to accommodate a variety of beverages. We elected Davis to be the initial pilot by grabbing him at the wrists and ankles and strapping him tightly to the device. For a few surreal moments, things reversed. The inventors stopped working and peered out through their glass enclosure to observe us. Davis gently depressed the red button beside his right thumb and the jetpack spit a handful of sparks out of its exhaust. We began to grumble meanly at the inventors as skepticism set in. We did not hope to relive the teleporter debacle.
We elected Davis to be the initial pilot by grabbing him at the wrists and ankles and strapping him tightly to the device.
Then Davis pressed harder, thumbing the button flat, and the jetpack released a volcanic belch that launched him forward at an incredible velocity into the nearest brick wall. He lost consciousness right away, and the collision reminded us of what it was like to feel pain. Sure, we all lauded the virtues of the Sensation Refocusing Module, but a few pain-free decades had forced us to realize pain’s protective qualities. Being able to feel pain greatly decreased the chances of losing a finger in a poker game or melting all the skin off your face. Seeing Davis pressed flat and round against the wall like a sweet fried plantain was a great rush of nostalgia for us all. In his unconsciousness, Davis’s hands fell onto the controls, kicking the jetpack to life and whipping his slack body around the room in a spastic pattern. We all had a good laugh at that and felt very warm inside. Warmth was one of the four things we could still feel.
No one could remember whose idea it was to put the inventors in the zoo exhibit. Perhaps they retreated into the enclosure on their own. In any case, it was a fine arrangement. We didn’t have to worry about the inventors keeping all the good inventions for themselves, and the barrier kept us from killing an inventor out of anger or impatience. Inventors were in short supply. Plus, there was a peculiar aesthetic appeal in the way their spent fuel cartridges and titanium test chamber clashed with the boulders, tall grass, and wading pool made to accommodate the tigers. Someone put the tigers in a lab on the college campus. That was a very good joke. Top joke of the year.
Being able to feel pain greatly decreased the chances of losing a finger in a poker game or melting all the skin off your face.
Now the inventors appeared pleased, grinning and high-fiving one another and polishing their spectacles on their lab coats. And why wouldn’t they be satisfied? How many people are fortunate enough to see the very purpose of their existence made manifest in the shape of human bottle rockets? The inventors cheered raucously and traded gleeful curses, but their celebration was brief and they returned to work with haste. Many important products remained uninvented, after all.
In no time there were enough jetpacks to go around. “About time!” we shouted at the inventors. “Lazy good-for-nothings.” The learning curve proved to be steep and treacherous. Several of us suffered broken spines or exploded midair like hurled firecrackers, and many more disappeared over the horizon and were never seen again, but these mishaps became less prevalent as we became more proficient jet-packers.
We soared at ill-advised speeds to magnificent heights, elevations where we were once confined to the cabins of airplanes, or helicopters, or hang gliders, or only the reassurance of a ripcord ready to be pulled. We poked pinholes through cumulus clouds, a thousand of us whirring past one another in every direction at all times, never more than a hair or two away from a glorious collision. We made our mark on the great blue yonder while only occasionally raining down showers of blood and dispossessed appendages. The inventors, we had to admit, did a pretty good job with this one. We took up a collection and bought them a humongous fruit basket.
Thomas Michael Duncan writes fiction, fact, opinion, and the occasional bit of nonsense. His work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Little Fiction, and The Good Men Project, among other places.
Illustrated by Caytlin Kuszewski.